Maximize your trade show experience

Mar 19, 2023

Trade shows and conferences are a great opportunity for your firm, but exhibiting can be a waste of time if you don’t approach it strategically.

As we look ahead to the rest of the year, it’s more important than ever to think strategically about your marketing spending. Trade shows are excellent opportunities to network, develop business relationships, and get face-time with potential clients. Not all trade shows are created equal however, and some just aren’t worth the investment. In order to maximize your trade show experience, you need to think strategically.

Go/no-go evaluations. Before a trade show even begins, it should be evaluated using a thorough go/no-go process, even if you’ve attended the show in the past. It’s important to fight the urge to exhibit just because “we’ve always done so.” Trade shows take a lot of time, money, and effort, so you need to prioritize the most impactful shows. The best trade shows offer a combination of exposure and brand awareness alongside an opportunity to build relationships with new and existing clients. Ask yourself some questions before you commit to exhibiting, such as:

  • What goals do we hope to achieve by exhibiting?
  • Are there key clients or decision makers in attendance?
  • What brand or media exposure do we get beyond the physical exhibit booth?
  • Is this a market or sector we are looking to grow in the next year?
  • Is this a region or state where we have a presence? Is it a region or state we would like to enter?
  • Will our competition be there?
  • Are there less expensive and more effective ways to participate, such as networking as attendees, hosting a conference party, or presenting at a panel or session?

For a trade show to be worthwhile, more than one of the evaluation criteria should be met. A trade show in a key market isn’t a good investment if it’s for a region outside your firm’s purview. A trade show with no decision makers in attendance isn’t worthwhile just because your competitors plan to attend. At BL, we’ve even stopped exhibiting at trade shows that looked good on paper, because the exhibit floor was consistently hidden and none of the attendees ever stopped by any booths. You need to prioritize the shows that will be most impactful.

Pre-show planning. Once you’ve determined that a trade show is worthwhile, it’s time to create an action plan to maximize that investment. If you go into a trade show without a plan, your staff won’t know where to focus their energy, and it will be hard to know if your exhibit was even successful. What the action plan entails will differ depending on your goals, but there’s some key things to look at regardless of what you want to achieve.

  • Try to get a list of attendees so you can identify key contacts to prioritize connecting with during the conference. You don’t want to miss out on a great potential client because you didn’t know they were there.
  • Train staff so they know how to be engaging and open to conversation. Nothing kills a booth faster than staff who are closed off, distracted, or otherwise poor communicators. Trade shows should grow your brand, not hurt your reputation.
  • Design the right booth. Exhibits should draw people in and keep them interested, so your staff can make a real connection. Raffles, new or exciting technology, or even a popular giveaway can be a great way to attract attention. At BL, we’ve had some great success just by hosting a game at our booths. It’s a nice way for attendees to unwind between sessions, and our staff get a chance to talk to folks while they wait for their turn to play.
  • Create some pre-show communications (e.g., social media posts, e-blasts, etc.) to further brand exposure and drum up excitement for your booth.

Post-show activities. Once a trade show has ended, it’s important to follow up with any potential clients, teaming partners, and leads. Don’t let new contacts go to waste. It’s also important to conduct a debrief with any staff who attended while the conference is still top of mind. Ask them about attendance, engagement, and specific outcomes. Was the exhibit hall well attended? Did clients stop by? Were goals met? If not, why? The answers collected during the debriefings will help determine if the trade show was indeed worth the investment. Additionally, it can give you an idea of where your own shortcomings are and where you can improve for the next show.

At the end of the day, trade shows and conferences are a great opportunity and exhibiting can be a great way to maximize those events. But exhibiting is a wasted opportunity if you don’t approach it strategically. 

Julia DeFrances is a senior marketing coordinator at BL Companies, Inc. She can be reached at

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.